By Kurt Maitland
During a recent trip to Hong Kong and Tokyo I picked up a bottle of Suntory’s The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky while in the Narita Airport Duty Free Shop (Hint to the wise whiskey shopper, always take a look in the Duty Free Shops when you are rolling through an airport – you never know what you will find). Please note that this isn’t the Hakushu 12 Year that pops up when one looks for Japanese whiskey. This is a younger, non-age statement (NAS) version of that line that appears to only be sold in Japan. It might be the whiskey what was referred to in John Hansell’s 2012 blog about the visit of Suntory’s master distiller Mike Miyamoto. So, if you are ever lucky enough encounter into this whiskey in a Duty Free Shop or a bar shelf, here is an idea of what you’ll find.
Hakushu, which is owned by Suntory, is located in Yamanashi Prefecture on the main island of Honshū. Hakushu is the highest and remotest distillery in Japan. It stands over 2300 feet above sea level and is located more than three hours from the coast. The distillery is located in a dense forest at the foothills of Mount Kai-Komagatake. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides, and this helps to create a unique climate, one that makes it closer to that of Scotland and is perfect for maturing that style of whiskey. The water that the distillery uses in production is soft and its source is the streams flowing under the granite rich foundations of Mount Kai-Komagatake and helps to give all of Hakusku’s releases a unique taste.
The Hakushu Single Malt comes in the same style of bottle as its older sibling (the Hakushu 12 Year Old). The major differences are the darker band around the top of the bottle and age statement on the 12 Year Old’s label (On this NAS single malt, the statement is replaced with the year of the foundation of the distillery – 1973)
The Hakusku Single Malt is bottled at 43% abv (86 proof) and has a light straw color. It has light hint of ginger and peat when you get your first whiff. You’ll taste vanilla, green apple, pear with the hints of ginger and peat making its finish spicer than its nose would indicate. It has an even and measured mouthfeel and a smooth but crisp balance. With a little water, the fruit note opens up and the Single Malt gets a little sweeter.
I like it as a standalone entry in my whiskey collection. For me it is less an example of Japan’s ability to make whiskeys that can go toe to toe with their older European counterparts and more an example of what you get when you blend Japanese tastes and sensibilities with European whiskey making. The 12 Year Old is a better example of a traditional whiskey. The Hakushu Single Malt however may make for the more unique entry in the whiskey world.
The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky retails for between ¥3000 (around $30 dollars US – which also makes it a great value as well), but is not available in the States as of yet. I believe it is only available at Japanese Duty Free Shops and at the Hakushu Distillery’s factory shop, In the Barrel. I’m already planning my next trip to Japan, if only to restock my now dwindling supply.